This overlooked wine-adjacent beverage has come out of its cocktail shell. You’ll want to give it a fresh try if you haven’t. 

By Chris Malloy
February 03, 2020

Vermouth is often seen as little more than one part in classic cocktails, like the negroni, martini, and Manhattan. It often sits idly on bar shelves, called on long after its prime. Yes, vermouth, like wine, has a prime and even expires—within two months of opening! Knowing basic styles and how to approach the unsung tincture can upgrade cocktails. Plus, vermouth has a growing place beyond the cocktail glass.

Before we get there, let’s lay out a few key things to know.

What Is Vermouth, Exactly? 

First, vermouth is mostly wine. It begins as a wine base, usually one of no better than average quality. This is because flavoring agents and a distilled spirit are added to the wine base, leveling what subtleties a high-end wine base would bring. The upshot of a lower-end base? Vermouth prices are friendly. Even better bottles won’t break the bank.

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Vermouth is a fortified wine. Its wine base is cut with a distilled spirit, commonly brandy. It is also sweetened (a little or a lot) and infused with a wide range of potential flavoring agents, like herbs, spices, vegetables, and/or botanicals. France, Spain, and Italy are common producers. Right now, vermouth is having a multiyear moment, with artisans in the U.S. and overseas making small batches in traditional and modern styles.

Styles of Vermouth

Vermouth can be red or white; sweet or dry. The three main styles, however, are sweet (which is red), dry (which is white), and bianco/blanc (sweet white). Sweet lives up to its name. You can really taste the sugar, and some bottles might be too sweet for you depending on your tastes. Dry has less sugar, but can still carry some sweetness. Bianco/blanc has the white color of a dry vermouth, but with more sweetness. In addition, there’s a growing roster of styles beyond these three.

Vermouths vary greatly. This is because producers can begin from many different wine bases. They can also add varying degrees of sweetness. Finally, vermouths can be infused with widely variable flavoring agents. Typically, vermouths are less bitter than the similarly infused Italian amari (like Campari and Aperol). Because vermouth is less bitter and less intense, it can make for a smoother sip.

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How to Drink Vermouth

You can drink vermouth neat. In Spain, people drink vermouth over ice, often with a twist and olive. You can also add carbonated water to vermouth, from just a final splash to an equal one-to-one amount, making a spritz. Sipping a chilled glass of vermouth, your experience will vary greatly from brand to brand and from style to style. You can think of vermouth like wine from a new angle, one that can be sweet, warming, and even eye-opening. It's similarly complex, but has a bolder, more botanical flavor compared to wine.

Looking for bottle recs? On the French side, Dolin is an affordable option. On the Italian side, Cocchi is a nice find for the price. For a treat, Carpano Antica Formula out of Torino, Italy is a classic that you can find for less than $20. It’s on the sweet side, so pour a little for sipping beside dessert.

You can try vermouths over ice, neat in a chilled glass, or when making cocktails—see what works for you. (Pro tip: make sure to stick to dry vermouth in a martini.) Maybe even try some of the boutique American brands if you see them at your wine or spirits store. If you like wine, odds are you’ll like vermouth. Who knows, the underrated fortified beverage might even emerge from the back shelf to a prime spot in your drink rotation.

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